Why does stress and anxiety feel so unpleasant

Introducing the fight or flight response

We’ve all experienced at least some of the symptoms of stress and anxiety before, whether that’s a tight neck, butterflies in the stomach, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, insomnia, digestive issues or shallow breathing. These symptoms are all very common but why do they occur and what can you do about them?

The symptoms of stress and anxiety arise from our in-built stress response, also known as the fight or flight response, which is an important survival mechanism intended to protect you from danger. If there is a threat to your life, the stress response is activated, giving you the energy and strength to run or fight. This mechanism enabled our ancestors to survive the threat of wild animals and unfriendly tribes – without it, we probably wouldn’t be here today.

However, most of the ‘threats’ we’re faced with today are not life or death situations. Our modern day ‘threats’ tend to be more psychological in nature, such as relationship problems, job insecurity, financial worries, saying ‘yes’ when we want to say ‘no’, or caring for a sick relative. The problem is, our brains deal with all threats in exactly the same way, by initiating the fight or flight response, so an unwieldy ‘to-do’ list or an argument with your neighbour can bring about the same changes in your body as if there was a real threat to your life.

When the fight or flight response is initiated, a variety of changes take place in the body which we can see in the symptoms of stress and anxiety. For example, we often experience aches and pains when we’re stressed or anxious. This is caused by muscles which have contracted as part of the fight or flight process in order to defend against potential injury or pain. Or we may experience digestive issues, which can occur when blood is diverted away from the digestive system, where it’s not immediately needed, and sent instead to the brain and muscles.

Other examples of stress and anxiety symptoms which correspond to fight or flight changes include: 

  • Feeling shaky or ‘jittery’: From a surge of the stress hormone, adrenaline, which triggers the fight or flight response
  • Faster heart and breathing rate: Where the heart is beating faster to provide more oxygen and energy to key muscles in preparation for action
  • Insomnia: From elevated levels of adrenaline and the body remaining alert for danger
  • Increased sweating: Where the body is trying to keep cool as increased heart and breathing rates cause body temperature to rise
  • Dizziness: Due to rapid, shallow breathing

Many of us also find our cognitive abilities affected when we are stressed or anxious. For example, we may say that we can’t think straight. There is a very good reason for this. When the stress response is active, the ‘thinking’ part of the brain is ‘tuned down’. This is because, if we’re in danger from a speeding car, then we need a lightning fast, automatic response to make us jump quickly out of the way. If we waited for the thinking part of our brain to assess the risk and consider what we should do about it, we would have lost valuable seconds, putting our life at risk.

Another reason why it can be difficult to think clearly when we’re stressed or anxious is that the fight or flight reaction is designed to fix our attention on any potential threat, which means that sometimes we may find it very difficult to think of anything else beyond what is causing us distress.

* NB: Always check any new, unexplained or concerning symptoms with a doctor

Calming the fight or flight response

Understanding what’s happening in our bodies when the fight or flight response is triggered can help us to feel less fearful or frustrated by symptoms (it’s just the body trying to look after us, albeit in a rather unhelpful way!). This knowledge also offers us options – we can do something about it!

There are lots of tips, tricks and techniques for better managing stress and anxiety. However, one of the first things I always work on with clients on my Shine programme, is to look at ways of calming the fight or flight response. This is an important foundational step for managing stress and anxiety as once the fight or flight response starts to calm down, stress and anxiety eases and the ability to think more clearly increases, making it easier to consider and identify our desired next steps.

Here are some examples of practices which can help to calm the fight or flight response:

  • Mindfulness
  • Exercise (although be aware, excessive exercise can actually increase stress) ** See also below
  • Listening to guided relaxation audios
  • Massage
  • Relaxing breathing techniques
  • Laughter
  • Listening to relaxing music
  • Progressive muscle relaxation techniques
  • Creative art
  • Yoga
  • Walking in nature

Practising one or two of these regularly can also help to build resilience for the longer term, allowing us to bounce back more easily and more quickly from the challenges of our day to day lives.

If you feel you would benefit from having somebody to support you through the process of reducing your own stress and anxiety, please get in touch and ask about my Shine programme.

** Always consult a doctor before starting a new exercise plan

© Michelle Drapeau, 2020

Image by Aaron Burden on Unsplash